Survey Finds Rabbis Are at Odds over Issues of Personal Status
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Survey Finds Rabbis Are at Odds over Issues of Personal Status

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Almost one-third of Reform rabbis in the United States still oppose the patrilineal definition of Judaism, which was accepted by the movement as policy in 1983.

And nearly a fifth of Orthodox rabbis now support it, even though it runs counter to halacha, or traditional Jewish law.

Those are among the surprising findings of a recent survey of attitudes held by rabbis and rabbinical students representing the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism.

The survey was conducted for the American Jewish Committee by Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College and the author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodoxy,” to be published shortly.

Heilman surveyed 525 rabbis and 138 rabbinical students from the four movements, querying them on a wide range of issues, including conversion and the role of halacha in modern life.

The results revealed that the movements, particularly the non-Orthodox, are far from monolithic in their positions.

They also show that Orthodox rabbinical students are consistently more conservative and particularistic than their own rabbis.

This, said Heilman, could indicate that the Orthodox rabbinate will be less pluralistic in the future than it is now, but could also merely be a reflection of the “quasi-monastic life” that some yeshiva students live.

These students’ attitudes may change once they “get into the real world of being a rabbi, where they have to make compromises,” he said.


The answers to questions on patrilineal descent show that it continues to be a controversial issue nearly a decade after the Reform movement decided to recognize the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jewish.

The Reconstructionist movement also recognizes such children as Jewish. But the Orthodox and Conservative movements adhere to the halachic definition, that Jewish identity is passed matrilineally, or through the mother.

A majority of rabbis from all of the movements, except for the Reconstructionist, agreed that the patrilineal decision was one of the most divisive acts in contemporary Jewish life.

Even 52 percent of Reform rabbis agreed with this characterization. And when asked if they favor or oppose the patrilineal definition, 32 percent of Reform rabbis said they oppose it.

When Orthodox rabbis were asked the same question, 70 percent said they oppose the patrilineal definition. But a surprisingly large minority of 19 percent said they favor it.

The Orthodox rabbis are saying that “they understand that defining Jews by patrilineal descent may have some benefits,” said Heilman.

And in the Reform movement, he said, “patrilineality isn’t by any means a closed issue, and the rabbis might, at some point in the future, reassess the decision they’ve made.”

The survey also found that rabbis and rabbinical students differ on the status of converts.

Almost all of the rabbis said they accept conversions by an Orthodox beit din, or religious court, but only one quarter of the Orthodox rabbis said they would accept halachic conversions not conducted under Orthodox supervision.

Almost none of the Orthodox and few of the Conservative rabbis would accept any kind of non-halachic conversion.


Almost all of the Orthodox respondents, and most of the Conservative respondents, said Reform rabbis are often too quick to perform conversions to Judaism. And one-fifth of Reform rabbis agreed with that statement.

And when it came to bringing converts into their own families, even the liberal rabbis showed a marked preference for those converted under traditional standards.

Interestingly, more Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis approve of having Orthodox converts in their own families than Orthodox rabbis do.

More than one-third of Orthodox rabbis said they would approve of their son marrying a Conservative convert, and more than one-quarter said they would approve of a Reform convert. But none of the Orthodox rabbinical students approved of having a non-Orthodox convert in the family.

When it comes to divorce, nearly all of the Orthodox rabbis said that a get is indispensable in the dissolution of a marriage. Eighty-five percent of Conservative rabbis agreed, and about an equal percentage of Reform rabbis disagreed. The Reconstructionists were split.

When it came to determining the status of children of a second marriage whose mother’s first marriage was dissolved without a get, the Orthodox rabbinical students were far less flexible than their rabbis.

More than a quarter of the Orthodox rabbis said they would not consider these children mamzerim, or halachically illegitimate, but only 3 percent of their students agreed.

Conservative rabbis equivocated on the issue, though more said they would not consider those children illegitimate than would.

A majority of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis would not consider these children mamzerim.


As might be expected, the movements differ on the role of halacha in modern life.

When asked if halacha must sometimes be compromised to preserve the Jewish people, just over one-third of Orthodox rabbis agreed, and 55 percent disagreed. By contrast, 70 percent of the Orthodox rabbinical students disagreed that halacha must sometimes be compromised.

A clear majority (82 percent) of Conservative rabbis agreed that halacha must sometimes be compromised, while 15 percent disagreed. Half as many Conservative students as rabbis were willing to compromise halacha.

The Conservative movement was evenly split on whether halacha must sometimes be ignored for the sake of Jewish unity. Heilman called their attitude toward halacha “one of the most ambiguous elements of their Judaism.”

When asked if they agree that in Jewish observance the middle road is best, a majority of Orthodox rabbis agreed, and more liberal rabbis disagreed than agreed.

Significant minorities of students in each of the movements were simply not sure how moderate or flexible they should be.

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